Total Recall: Mighty Viking Movies

With Thor hitting theaters, we run down some of cinema's most memorable Norsemen.



Most historians agree that Norse explorer Leif Ericson was the first European to lead an expedition to America. But what if another group of Vikings beat them to it by 500 years, only to be slaughtered, leaving a pale blond orphan to be raised among the Wampanoag -- and ultimately fight for them against a new wave of Viking invaders? That's the interesting question raised by director Marcus Nispel's 2007 would-be epic -- unfortunately, the answers the movie came up with were often of the unintentionally humorous variety. (As Xan Brooks of the Guardian put it, "Imagine a heavy metal album cover come suddenly to life and you pretty much have the measure of Pathfinder.") Still, among all the critical wreckage, there were a few voices of praise, including Chris Hewitt of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, who wrote, "Pathfinder makes sure its carnage is bloody, awful and pointless. But pretty."

The 13th Warrior


You've got to give author Michael Crichton credit for tenacity -- he wanted to see this adaptation of his novel Eaters of the Dead brought to the screen so badly that he hung on through years of bumpy production and ultimately took over for director John McTiernan -- but considering The 13th Warrior's anemic $61 million gross and 33 percent Tomatometer rating, all that effort might have been better spent on another novel. Though the novel drew its inspiration from the fascinating tales of 10th-century Arab traveler Ahmad ibn Fadlan (played by Antonio Banderas) -- and took them one step further, imagining a Viking adventure between Fadlan and Beowulf -- the movie failed to measure up to those classic texts. Still, even if it missed the mark, Warrior found supporters in critics like Gary Dauphin of the Village Voice, who called it "a well-marbled, albeit derivative, slab of action-movie man meat."

Valhalla Rising


The films of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn have always demonstrated an affinity for -- and a deep-rooted fascination with -- violence, and those qualities were distilled into pure bloody mayhem for 2009's Valhalla Rising. Slow and lumbering, with a mute, murderous protagonist known only as One-Eye (played by Mads Mikkelsen), Valhalla dispenses with niceties like exposition, hope, or even much in the way of dialogue, and trades them all for a brutally violent, beautifully filmed trip to the Holy Land for our mute Viking hero and a group of Christian Crusaders. Its grinding pace and copious amounts of mud and blood obviously aren't for everyone, but as Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum noted, "When it comes to crazy, violent, semidelirious, testosterone-laden, proto-Viking tales about a mute visionary one-eyed warrior who breaks skulls, Valhalla Rising is pretty great."

The Vikings


We couldn't very well publish a list of Viking movies without including The Vikings, could we? This 1958 epic, which ended up being the final collaboration between director Richard Fleischer and star/producer Kirk Douglas, is overblown in the very best sense of the word, from its stentorian narration (provided by Orson Welles) to its larger-than-life Technicolor vistas and eyebrow-raising, mostly bushy-bearded cast (including Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine, and a clean-shaven Janet Leigh). Some critics chortled at its soapy blend of melodrama and castle-storming action, but most found it too spectacular to resist, including Time Out's Nigel Floyd, who described it as "Plenty of pillaging, axe-throwing, hearty quaffing of ale, storming of castles, heroic jumping into wolf pits, and manly talk about the glories of entering Valhalla with sword in hand."

The War Lord


An admirable mid-1960s attempt to de-romanticize feudal life -- while still retaining all the Hollywood sweep and grandeur audiences demanded -- The War Lord stars Charlton Heston as Chrysagon de la Cruex, a lusty Norman knight whose efforts to defend his village against the invading Viking hordes are complicated when he decides to poach the bride of one of his subjects. More of a romantic drama than most of the films on this list, it earned praise from most critics; even the New York Times' Bosley Crowther, who good-naturedly mocked "that histrionic hair shirt that Charlton Heston dons when he plays any role," applauded its plentiful "bow-and-arrow shooting and throwing spears and pouring boiling oil and battering-ramming the great oak doorway and assaulting the fortress with a scaling-tower."

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don't forget to check out the reviews for Thor.

Finally, here's a musical tribute to Norsemen from the mighty Led Zeppelin:


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